Imperfect parenting

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had,

And add some extra, just for you” – Philip Larkin

I remember being shocked when I read that poem, “This Be the Verse,” of which that’s the first stanza. Even though I read it in a university class, it was still very attention-grabbing and memorable.

It’s something that has stayed in my head, both informing my parenting and later in coming to peace with my own parents. It’s inevitable that we all screw up as parents.

Perhaps it’s sad that it took so long, but making peace with my own parents only happened when I moved back down here and when my own kids became teenagers. My relationship with my parents does better with some geographic distance. I couldn’t handle their disinterest in my life or my kids’ when I was only 10 minutes away from them.

And I needed the understanding that can only come from living with teenagers to make me realize that if I ever hoped to be forgiven for my unintentional screw-ups with my own kids, I had to forgive my parents, too.

Now, I’m not saying that this is advice to everyone with their own parents. Every family relationship is different and some are too unhealthy to continue. I’m just speaking of my own experience.

I had what I think were some legitimate gripes about things my parents did. The way they reacted when I told them I was date-raped is near the top of the list: they told me to keep my voice down so my younger sister wouldn’t hear and asked me what I was wearing at the time it occurred. I think a lot of my fear of men stems from that event. I still think their reaction was pretty messed up.

Not being told my grandma had died until weeks after she had been buried also ranks right up there, too, especially because I was still living close by my parents.

When I was younger, I was jealous of the kids I went to school with who were much wealthier than I was. Many of them bullied me quite severely. For a long time, I resented my parents for not being able to afford for me to have the clothes that were more stylish and regular salon trips. I thought for a long time that if only I’d had better clothes, I wouldn’t have gotten bullied so badly. Because those kids were both wealthy and popular, I correlated the two, thinking that my lack of wealth was the only thing keeping me unpopular.

Once I started working in high school, I could finally afford to buy all the trendy clothes that I thought would make me “cool.” But it was then that I realized that coolness or lack thereof had very little to do with what I wore. I very likely would have been bullied anyway because I was a really smart kid–a bit of a know-it-all–with very poor self-confidence. Even now, I see that lack of self-confidence is like how dogs can smell fear: it radiates off of you. The people you attract are either nice people who are also unpopular or toxic people who take advantage of you and often make fun of you behind your back.

But now I realize that my parents were doing the best they could, just as I was doing the best I could with my own kids. Some of those old feelings of shame about being poor resurfaced in therapy last week, as I wrote about, and I plan to discuss that with my therapist and see how it goes. It will be my last-ditch effort to see if this therapist can work for me. I know I need therapy to help me get over the shame I feel about growing up poor and continuing to be poor when we were in Michigan.

I also know that being wealthy doesn’t inherently make you a good person and that plenty of wealthy families are highly dysfunctional. But many of the people I’ve known who grew up wealthy or are still wealthy don’t appreciate much and fail to help others. (Of course, there are also wealthy people who are very appreciative of what they have and are generous with those in need.)

I’ve realized that I actually like my parents as people, provided there’s some physical distance between us. I get my liberal values from them. I also get the desire to help others from them, as well as my open-mindedness. My mom reacted so well when I told her my oldest was transgender. She said, “tell Amy we love her and nothing changes that!” I haven’t told anyone else yet–both because Amy hasn’t legally changed her name yet and because my parents were the only ones I felt needed to know at this point.

My dad just turned 70 yesterday and I’m aware that his remaining time could be short. He could also live for 25 more years; his father is still alive at 94. But I’m grateful to still have him around and to have made peace with both my parents. I love them even if sometimes they drive me crazy (which I’m sure is mutual.)

But knowing how toxic some other families are makes me appreciate that mine really wasn’t. Yes, they made mistakes, but I really don’t think they meant to, in the same way that I’ve made mistakes with my own kids without intending to.

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